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Published: 2004/08/27
by Chris Gardner

Book of Silk – Tin Hat Trio

Ropeadope Records

Did you feel that? That breeze tickling the hairs on your arms? That was
the collective exhalation of the NPR music programmers scattered across the
nation. The new Tin Hat Trio record is here, and they can finally stop working and just push play. The merits of being an NPR darling are debatable I suppose, but the Trio are most decidedly that. No band sees more frequent airplay, with All Things Considered in particular wearing holes in their many copies of 2002’s indubitably brilliant The Rodeo Eroded. The relationship makes sense. Perhaps no band working today better embodies the erudite and eclectic values to which NPR so ardently aspires.

The trouble with Tin Hat Trio, from a reviewer's perspective, is of course
that they are so damn good. One never feels more deeply the anonymous words
so often attributed to Thelonious Monk, "Writing about music is like dancing
about architecture." Words just can't bear the load. So I begin this piece
knowing firstly that, for listeners familiar with the band's work, I can do
little more than reinforce what you already know and secondly that, for
those unfamiliar with the band's catalog, I can do little more than paint
around the edges, wasting thousands of letters in vain attempts to wrap
words around the unwrappable.

So the busy and wise among you should read little more than the following:
BUY THIS RECORD. For the curious, the indulgent, the jobless, the
inquisitive, the work evaders, and the tragically bored, I offer the
following.

A large part of the genius of the Tin Hat Trio lies here: they are
immediately inviting and interminably elusive. As an anxious reviewer, you
tear the disc out of its mailer, expecting great things. You are sucked
into a space where you know right off that you lack the vocabulary to
describe the beautiful mash all about you. But it's your duty damn it, and
you bravely step into the breach. When in doubt, it's best to fall back on
clich Luckily, you grabbed a Big Book of Rock Journalism Cliches
in Cleveland this summer during the FRRWA (Fictional Record Reviewer's World Alliance) convention. You scratch down a few possibilities on a napkin:
distinctive, challenging, engaging, rewards repeated listening, erudite,
literate (which you think just might work even though only one song has
vocals), ground-breaking, landmark, organic, timeless, blah, blah, blah….

You know you can safely claim that the record is eclectic, so you turn to
Chapter 4: "Synonymism" and jot the many synonyms for or approximations of "eclectic": multi-genre, globe-hopping, it manages to blend _____ and
_____ seamlessly, crosses boundaries between _____ and _____, is a union of _____ and _____ with _____ sensibilities, strikes a balance between ____ and ____, feels both antiquated and fresh, and is really _____ but reeks of
_____. Ahh! You're feeling better about this already.

You have to place the record in some kind of context, but the book doesn't
quite cover it. As you fling the worthless old war horse across the couch,
a handy FRRWA pamphlet entitled "A Quick and Easy Genre Guide" flutters to
the floor. Flipping through, you find all those impenetrable and
unnecessary genre distinctions. Twee, scre-Emo, slamgrass, space rock,
sadcore, cowpunk, and all that crap. "Seriously," you silently
muse, "somebody makes a living creating these frickin' words," but amid the
nonsense a number of genres or styles strike you as particularly applicable
to Book of Silk. None of them, of course, do the the real work of
describing the music, but you suspect the following list will serve as a
comfort to you when writing about a record like this.

You make a list of
possible genres: acoustic, folkstrumental, chamber acoustic, free folk,
acoustic carnival chamber, gypsy cowboy folk, Slovakian-American immigrant folk. While you're at it, you scatter a few words from the influences list (Eastern Europeany, American westernish), a few names from the influential musicians list (Tom Waits, Bill Frissell, Flaco Jimenez, John Zorn), and a few moods (spooky, ethereal, creepy, unsettling). Finally, you slap down the primary players and their various instruments: Rob Burger (accordion, piano, pump organ, harmonica, marxophone), Carla Kihlstedt ()violin and viola), Mark Orton (guitar, dobro, banjo), with Zeena Parkins (harp) and Bryan Smith (tuba).

You're ready. Or, at least you think you're ready. Either way it's gotta
be done. You begin…

Book of Silk is a record that does exactly what music should do:
transmits its message or truth so directly that words become not only
superfluous but absurd. Nonetheless, I press on. The folkstrumental gypsy
cowboy chamber music of the Tin Hat Trio strikes a perfect balance between
antiquated and avant-garde. It defies classification on literally every
level, sounding at once like the lost music of the late 1800s and like the
pending music of the next millennium. It is erudite and timeless, inviting
and elusive, unsettling and comforting, challenging and familiar. It blends
the adventurous spirit of John Zorn with the relaxed technical dexterity of
Bill Frissell and the left-of-center sensibilities of Tom Waits. The
musical blend is a seemingly incongruous match of misplaced instruments.
Accordion, guitar, violin, harp, and tuba. Some of these don't even belong
in the same room together. The catch of course is that these
conservatory-trained musicians elicit such wide arrays of sounds from their
instruments that the incongruities soon fade. The violin whelps, the
accordion huffs, and the tuba and dobro function so beautifully as a pair
that your heart damn near melts. The truth is this: initially, half of the
fun derives from the, "What the hell makes that noise?" game, but it soon
wears thin. You abandon what is, in the end, a fruitless pursuit
(especially since you have no idea what a marxophone is), and focus on the
sounds.

And the sounds are unparalleled. Like the best of musicians, the band has
a tremendous respect for silence. Each vibration is treated as an intrusion
into silence, and as such each squeeze of the accordion, each drag of the
bow, each pluck of a string or closing of a valve adopts a gravity.
Everything here counts. The incursions into silence are so delicate in fact
that the appearance of a guitar pick five songs into the album is at once a
revelation and a scandal.

Themes pass from instrument to instrument with no clear leader. The violin
and accordion often zig and zag around each other, swapping the melodic
lead. They simultaneously voice the theme, separate, and rejoin
organically. Melodies develop slowly or not at all, drifting in and out of
the foreground, visiting both the center and the periphery of the music.
The disappearance and resurgence of themes and melodies lends a spectral air
to the proceedings, notes drifting hither and thither with ghostly ease.
Toss in prepared pianos and guitars and a few sundry clangs, scrapes and
plinks and the mood becomes creepy, ethereal, and often downright spooky.

In other moments though, the band adopts a stately precision. Several
passages employ tick-tock rhythms (alternating tuba notes, circular guitar
patterns, swagging violin bows that conjure the arm of a grandfather clock)
that impose time on what is often free folk, time-free music. The more
regimented passages are often some of the album's best. "Things That Might
Have Been" finds the dobro and tuba and the violin and accordion working in
pairs. The dobro states the theme immediately, but the melody soon passes
to the other pair before the soloists emerge in turn. There is a welcoming
familiarity to the pattern that highlights the more amorphous nature of the
bulk of the album.

"Light Black Form Pole to Pole" falls on the other side. Indiscernible
instruments buzz in a loose approximation of morse code beneath a wandering accordion for several minutes. That's it. And somehow, it works. It precedes the exquisite waltz "Lauren's Lullaby" (which again relies heavily
on the dobro) and renders it all the more beautiful by juxtaposing form and
formlessness.

The whole of the album offers many such relations as the songs begin to
converse with one another. In short, this album is an album, and it's a
beauty of an album at that. But I've already told you that I can't tell you
anything worthwhile about it, despite any evidence to the contrary. I may
as well dance about the blobular beauty Frank Gehry's work. The fact of the
matter is you simply have to get your hot little hands on the record and
find out for yourself. Well, either that or just tune into NPR for a week.
When an accordion, a banjo, a tuba, and a violin stop you cold and make you
say, "Damn," you'll know those slacker programmers are up to their old
tricks again.

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